The work of an expert Turkish delight-maker is garnering
a following at a new Auckland eatery.
While the thick gelatinous lumps often left in
the bottom of a box of assorted chocolates may deter some from ever seeking out proper Turkish delight, a new Auckland eatery is set to rebrand the traditional Middle Eastern treat as something to be celebrated. It may even end up with a new name - or two. "I don't know why people only say 'Turkish delight'. I call it Greek delight or, in Greece, we call it loukoumi," says Denada Becoku, as she regards her latest batch of the silky soft, delicately flavoured sweet, sitting under its dusting of snowy icing sugar on the low marble counter where she works.
Nada is the confectionery chef at Bodrum Kitchen, a newly opened eatery in The Brickworks dining lane of Auckland's LynnMall. Wanting every element of his restaurant to be authentic, co-owner Alex Isik was averse to the idea of importing Turkish delight.
Instead, he spread the word about his dream of hiring an expert maker of loukoumi to work in his kitchen.
He got in touch with Nada through a mutual friend. Nada had run a business with her husband in Greece, where they made 200 kilograms of it each day.
Traditional loukoumi is made from a gel of sugar and starch, sometimes with chopped nuts added, and flavourings such as rosewater, orange or lemon. It's believed to have its roots in the Ottoman Empire and remains popular in the Middle East, but is also made in parts of Europe, including Greece.
Customers can watch Nada prepare her piles of tempting loukoumi at the marble counter that Alex designed especially as a "sweet factory". The key to her recipe is its simplicity: free of gelatine, little more goes into her mixture than sugar, cornflour, water and flavouring (the one sitting before us is filled with nuggets of chopped hazelnut).
She says the trickiest part of the process is the continual stirring to avoid burning the dough and notes it's important to keep an eye on the consistency, as it's easy for it to become too dense or too gooey, making it difficult to cut.
Bodrum Kitchen is the latest project for Alex and wife
Nigar (the restaurant's executive chef) - the Turkish couple also owns Deco Eatery in Titirangi and the chain of Mozaik cafes. But this latest venture was particularly special for them, as a chance to celebrate their heritage. The space features intricately decorated tabletops from Alex's village in Turkey, cups and plates
commissioned from nearby Steiner Ceramics that are glazed with traditional "evil eye" talismans to ward off bad luck, and even bright tables from the Turkish town of Bodrum itself. Alex wants every element of Bodrum Kitchen to be beautiful, but to also contain
a story for those curious enough to hear it.
A considered mix of Turkish and Greek dishes make up the menu, some inspired by the food cooked by Alex's family - several of whom now work for him as chefs. His aim is for the menu to showcase the similarities between the two cultures, with souvlaki, mezedes (small plates of appetisers), breads and dips designed to be shared. "Ninety-nine per cent of our cultures are the same," says
Alex. "I've never seen them mixed like this, even outside
of New Zealand. Some menus might mix the two a little,
but not as clearly as we do here. I want Turkish people to
eat here; I want Greek people to eat here - everyone."
That connection between Turkish and Greek cuisine is embodied in loukoumi, which is a treasured classic across both cultures. With recipes and techniques passed on from an old family friend, Nada began making it with her husband when she was a teenager.
Thousands of batches later, she says she finds it much easier than when she first began ("I was so young!" she laughs). She is producing around four kilograms a day at Bodrum Kitchen, with plans to build up their output.
Nada has embraced her new life here; the call from Alex came at a time when she and her husband were already trying to relocate to New Zealand from the Greek city of Thessaloniki, but facing incredible difficulties with immigration agencies. She's now thankful her family is able to call Auckland home, permanently. Her husband also works at Bodrum Kitchen (sometimes lending Nada
an arm when it comes time to stir the dough) and her eldest daughter will join them once she has finished her high school exams.
"Everything is different here. All the people here are very helpful and you feel free here. It's hard to explain," says Nada, smiling. She smiles a lot. When I meet her for the second time, she is wearing a bright new uniform, which she declares she loves because of its resemblance to the Greek flag. Working in the centre of the restaurant has led to many conversations with many people from Greece, and she recalls a day when the Greek music she had playing brought a tear to a customer's eye.
Bringing cultures together is at the heart of Bodrum Kitchen and, like Nada, Alex believes loukoumi by any other name tastes just as sweet. "Some people call it Turkish delight, some people call it Greek delight, it's the same. That's what I want for Bodrum Kitchen; New Zealand gave me a feeling of wanting everyone to be together."